The Burston Strike School 1914 – 1939
The story of Burston….The Burston School strike began before the outbreak of World War 1 when Annie (Kitty) and Tom Higdon were sacked after a dispute with the local school management committee. It did not end until the first skirmishes of World War 2 per taking place. As a response to being dismissed Annie Higdon was to set up a marquee on the local village green where local children – many who came from poor agricultural working backgrounds – would be taught.
The strike school continued gaining support and eventually the school moved into a local carpenter’s shop before a purpose built building was created for the community which had been financed by contributions from the labour movement. For 25 years Annie and Tom Higdon taught the communities children in a ranged of subjects until the death of Tom in 1939.
By the time the Burston Strike School closed its door to pupils in 1939, the children and their parents had an impact on the village like no other school strike. A strike that had begun merely as just a local action in defence of two victimised teachers soon gained national (1) and eventually international (there is a local rumour that Lenin had a keen interest in the strike, but I have not been able to verify it) notoriety.
Enter the Higdons…
Tom and Kitty Higdon had been forced into taking a transfer to the village of Burston in January 1911. The appointment of the Higdons to Wood Dalling School in Norfolk in 1902 at the same time an Education Bill promoting education for working class children was making its way through parliament. In Wood Dalling Tom Higdon identified with the local farm labourers and, as a consequence, ran into and confronted hostile school managers, who were mostly farmers. Tom was himself a member The National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers (NUAAW) rather than the National Union of Teachers (NUT).
Agricultural workers and educators united…
In 1913, after organising among the local agricultural labourers, Tom Higdon stood for election to the parish council and, with the support of the agricultural workers, won convincingly. The farmers had relied on Elland for their control of the parish council, they still had control of the school’s managing body and were determined to use this power to victimise the Higdons.
The strike action was initiated when, looking for a pretext for action, the managers accused Kitty of lighting a fire without their permission – to dry the clothes of children who had walked three miles to school in the rain. As well as the accusation of gross discourtesy there was reprimand for an unfounded claim of the physical abuse of two Barnardo’s girls at the school.
Strike, School and Strike School
The Higdons were sacked in April 1914. The strike school was very well equipped and funded by national as well as local trade union and Labour. It maintained a full timetable and met all formal regulatory requirements with the full support of parents. By 1917, a National Appeal supported with donations from miners’ and railway workers’ unions, Trades councils, Independent Labour Party (ILP) branches and Co-operative Societies led to the opening of the Burston Strike School.
The Burston Strike Rally
As every year the rally was a celebration to commemorate the longest strike in history and to celebrate the people who continue to fight for Trade Union rights, working class education, democracy in the countryside and international solidarity. Addressing the rally on 2 September, 2018, Labour’s then Deputy Leader, John McDonnell spoke of the historic significance of the teachers, pupils, agricultural workers and the wider community as well as the symbolic importance of the school itself and most importantly “the enduring influence” of the strike itself (2).
The Lesson of Burston
Their impact on the children of Norfolk and the story of positive action still resonates and the images of teachers taking side with their pupils and fighting for social justice and against the economically powerful are particularly important in the wake of the growing academization of our school system and the attacks on comprehensive.
- Shaun Jeffrey, The Burston Strike School and Norwich Labour Party: Rural Radicalism in the early 20th Century, lecture 27 September 2018, Norwich
- John Mcdonnell, Speech at the Burston School Strike Rally, 2 September 2018, Burston
- Burston Strike School Trustees, The Burston School Strike (1989)
- Ian Duckett, ‘The importance of the Burston School Strike and its legacy’ in Education Politics (March, 2019)
- Ian Duckett, ‘Burston School Strike: more than a moment in history’, Norfolk NEU News (September, 2019)
- Bert Edwards, The Burston School Strike (1975)
- T.G Higdon, The Burston Rebellion (1916)
- Shaun Jeffrey, The Village Revolt: the story of the longest strike in history (2018)
by Ian Duckett